Can you learn to love scotch? Over to Edinburgh to find out. And read on for five whiskies to get you started
Scotch scares me. With its strange salty flavour, antiseptic aroma and fiery scorch as it goes down, it has always seemed like a taste acquired much later in life. It's a drink for the refined older gentleman: for Sean Connery, not for me. But recently I've wondered if I'm missing out. Surely my palate isn't so childlike that I can't learn to appreciate whisky - maybe even fall in love with it?
At the Whiski Rooms in Edinburgh, its assistant manager and scotch obsessive Garry Ford is determined to prove that scotch is for everyone. On a candlelit table, plump little whisky glasses are lined up for me in order of lightest to most medicinal, so that my palate isn't overwhelmed.
Garry explains that although I won't be able to pick out all the "essences" in scotch - it would take years to expand my scent vocabulary to match an expert's - by the end of the tasting I will know what to smell and taste for.
We begin with a lesson in how scotch is made, from germinating the barley to ageing it for a minimum of three years in oak barrels. Garry tells me to pick up the first glass and swill the liquid around. How much sticks to the sides, and its consistency, tells me how oily the drink is and how alcoholic. This one - a 21-year-old single grain whisky called Port Dundas - leaves a dotted line of drips around the edge, showing it's strong. This is going to burn.
I push my nose into the glass and breathe in with my mouth slightly open, as instructed. A blast of strong, alcoholic whiskiness rushes out. Garry asks what I can smell. I rack my brains for a poetic answer but come up short. "Bourbon?"
"Yes, that's from the barrels it was aged in," says Garry. "Can you smell that it's sweet?" I realise that I can, but hadn't thought to mention it. Garry asks what sort of sweetness. Stumped again. "I'm getting icing sugar," Garry tells me. As soon as he says it, the smell opens up and, yes, it's icing sugar catching high on the back of my throat - a sharp, clean sweetness.
To drink scotch, you don't bring air in to your mouth like you do with wine. You take a sip, hold it in your mouth for a couple of seconds (some people chew on it a little) then swallow. That's when the flavour hits, and this one is sweet and honeyed and pungently alcoholic. Adding a couple of drops of water takes the edge off the alcohol, and makes the drink much smoother.
"Don't believe snobs who say you can't add water. It enhances some whiskies," Garry says.
We move along the row, finding new flavours and smells in each glass. Dalmore 15yo smells like pannetone; Old Pulteney 12yo is salty - the makers say that's because it's aged in barrels by the sea. Garry's getting excited because each time I taste a new one, I'm adding to the flavour encyclopedia in my head.
Finally it's time for the big boys: a couple of heavily peated, almost transparent scotches. Scenting the barley with smoked peat creates that antiseptic flavour that puts so many people off. Pushing my nose into a glass of this pungent concoction, I realise it's also what makes whisky such an exciting drink. We take a deep sniff of Ardbeg 10yo. A powerful top note of TCP wallops me on the nose. A sip: it's smooth but leaves my mouth alight with an explosion of flavour - not just TCP, but bonfire smoke and salt. Garry says the hot, dry woodiness of these "peaty monsters" reminds him of being 14 years old in a sauna in Gleneagles.
That's the thing about smells: you can time-travel with them. I realise, a little sadly, how much I've neglected my olfactory and gustatory senses - it's as though I only use them in black and white.
But Garry is encouraging. "Now you need to start building up a library of smells in your brain," he tells me. "If you're walking down the street and you smell something interesting, find out what it is, and remember it. Every smell triggers a memory; it's just a matter of having them to draw on."
My homework is to drink more whisky, and back at my B&B, 14 Hart Street - where guests are treated to a decanter of whisky in their rooms - I am a model student.
Step one, swill glass: it's strong. Step two, big sniff: there's that familiar honeyed sweetness of a bourbon barrel. Step three, take a big, long sip: heaven.
Whiski Rooms, Edinburgh, tastings from £17.50. Stay at 14 Hart Street from £82/night
Five whiskies to get you started
Black Bottle blended whisky
It's a myth that blends aren't as good as malts. Whiskies are blended to create consistency while malts vary with each barrell, so if you want to sell a whisky that always tastes the same you have to blend it to create the flavour you want. Black Bottle is a mix of many different whiskies. The key notes are salt, mild smoke and mild spice. It's lightly sweet and very smooth.
Coming in at under £35, this is a very reasonably priced single malt. The notes of Christmas cake and gentle winter spices and its deep red colour come from Oloroso red oak sherry barrels. It's very smooth in the mouth, and a good all-rounder for beginners.
An amazing single malt whisky, with a heavy sherry influence which gives it flavours of treacle, vanilla pods and gentle spices that explode on the palate. This is very oily whisky because of the height of the still it was distilled in: a short fat still creates oil build up. An oily whisky lingers on the palate for a long time.
An incredibly smooth single malt whisky triple-distilled in Glasgow. You'll pick up toffee apples, vanilla and nutmeg on the nose and on the palate it's quite nutty, with hints of ginger spice and chocolate. It is aged in three different barrells: bourbon, oloroso, and pedro ximénez. Vanilla comes from the bourbon, oloroso lends a dried Christmas cake flavour, and PX brings an intense sherry flavour.
Pronounced "oo-ga-dale", this is one for the "peat freaks" - whisky drinkers who love that strong, medicinal smoked-peat flavour. Named after the loch Ardbeg draws its water from, it's high in alcohol. Essences to smell for include smoke, salt, ash, tobacco and leather. It's very oily in the mouth so the taste and feeling will linger for a long time - just don't kiss anyone straight after drinking it.
Photo: First, take a deep sniff of the whisky, then take a sip, chew it over and let the flavour hit you. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian